In rural Angus the hands of time are being turned back.
Decay is frozen, ruination stopped in its tracks,as the murmurings of restoration revive Balintore Castle from its fifty year slumber.
For those unaware, Balintore Castle is a Grade A listed mansion designed by eminent Victorian architect William Burn. Built in 1860 and abandoned 100 years later, silence prevailed over its empty halls for half a century. Now signs of life are once again present, heralding a most welcome renaissance for this spectacular showpiece.
The current works come at the hands of David Johnston, the castle’s latest owner and champion of its revival. His ongoing restoration adventures are charted in his own entertaining blog – Balintore Castle Restoration Project – which is well worth a read. To my delight, a long-held dream of mine was realised when David kindly accepted my self-invitation to lend a hand in proceedings at the castle last year.
I had fallen in love with Balintore from the moment I first visited, not long after my initial forays into ruins began in 2008. Its architecture is, in a word, sublime. The trademark features of Burns’s baronial style are assembled with an expert elegance often lacking in more brutal compositions, and I remember being enchanted by the profusion of conical roofed towers and iron finials which pierce its roofline while exuding Victorian confidence at its boldest.
Despite the almost indestructible strength suggested by the castle’s powerful form, the shattered windowpanes, sunken internal floors and collapsed masonry of the monumental oriel window betrayed the effects of advanced neglect. Yet, like the tentative signs of spring after a long winter, the numerous heaps of exhumed rubble piled outside the basement windows gave a hint that the onslaught of dereliction was beginning to be challenged.
Balintore left a lasting impression on me, and I recorded this in my pastel and collage piece Stone by Stone, which depicts the entrance tower with its ornamental door-piece. Little did I know that a few years later I would be spending my nights in the attic space of this very tower, thrilled to be involved in even the smallest of ways in the valiant work of David and his builder Andy.
It is my lifetime’s ambition to save an historic property. Amidst all other uncertainties is the one firmly held hope and belief that I will one day restore my own home, be it a castle with sixty rooms or a cottage with six. Thus, the opportunity to engage myself in the daily duties of restoration was one to be relished.
Reconstruction on the scale required at Balintore is by no means a walk in the park. Every seemingly diminutive task is increased in duration and complexity by the castle’s grand and imposing scale. Multiplied too however is the sense of satisfaction achieved when a phase of works is finally complete, and far from discouraging me from my restoration dreams, experiencing the day to day realities of castle renovation only served to intensify my desire to one day take on a similar project of my own.
This gradual process of reclamation felt intrinsically ‘right’ to me; the re-awakening of a building nearing its demise presenting itself as the most natural occupation in the world.
The opportunity to spend a prolonged period at Balintore also enabled me to immerse myself in a ruin to an extent I had previously not had the chance to do. Spending night and day within Balintore’s semi-derelict fabric, living and breathing the place for a number of days was an altogether different experience to the 30-60 minutes I would usually spend visiting a ruin.
Much to my delight life at the castle felt immediately familiar, my visit made all the more welcoming by David’s generous hospitality. The appeal of Balintore for me is that it feels like a world away. Its very position, perched high up over the glen below affirms its potential as a place of escape. Looking out across the rolling plains of Angus framed picturesquely by twin trees below the castle terrace, it seems suddenly easy to feel distanced from the concerns of everyday life and able to fully appreciate the marvellous surroundings.
As I became more in tune with the place, I found myself gaining an appreciation of restoration as an almost organic process, the built subject of which acts like a living, breathing creature. Parameters and boundaries are constantly shifting, giving a sense of the building returning to a previous state yet at the same time becoming something entirely new. It is a reminder of what very different entities a house and a ruin actually are.
In a place which finds itself somewhere between these two states, the distinction between outside and inside is delightfully blurred. Butterflies take refuge among shreds of old wallpaper and sundry furry visitors can make an unexpected appearance at any moment. Striking too is the way in which light interacts with the place; unconfined by solid walls and floors it leaks through the cracks and crevices of the interior. Dusty rays filter down through rotten floorboards to illuminate a basement room below, or otherwise burst upwards to pierce the darkness of a shuttered attic bedroom.
As the constant repairs move forward these trickles of stray light are gradually stemmed one by one, as if the delicate holes in some moth-eaten old fabric were being darned. Birds are ousted from their uninvited roosts and invasive plant growth is banished as the castle re-joins the realm of the living, returning from a state it was never intended to inhabit.
In the quest to reinstate Balintore as a permanent residence, even the humblest of tasks can carry a sense of great achievement upon their completion. The knowledge that with every bucket of rubble carried out of the building another step is being taken towards the end result makes the act of clearing a room of its accumulated detritus the simplest of pleasures despite the hard work involved. The instant effect of such tasks provides a boost, enabling one to appreciate the original dimensions of a room once again and to more easily envisage it as a habitable space.
I just loved this process of transformation, and felt truly privileged to be a part of it if only for a few days. It is incredibly humbling to know that you are merely one in a long line of people to have known this building – those who have made it their place of work, called it home or explored its empty chambers over its 150 year history.
Ever-present in my mind were thoughts of who may have passed through each space before me, taken the very steps I took through every room and corridor, sometimes leaving a tantalizing trace of their existence to be noticed if you look closely enough.
Balintore was a dream for me. I can’t express how much I admire David for his drive, determination and complete dedication to saving this building from future decay. Looking back through my photographs of six years ago, it is all too easy to imagine how much further the castle would undoubtedly have deteriorated had David not intervened.
On one of my last nights at the castle a restless wind began to whip up the glen, buffeting against the castle walls on its exposed position up on the hillside. Power was lost and a few candles provided the only light in the scullery where David and I spent the evening. David retired to bed shortly before midnight, and feeling a compulsion to experience the elemental forces at work, I ventured outside.
The strong winds had blown away all traces of cloud overhead revealing stars strewn across an inky sky, their intensity unbleached by the invasion of streetlamps. The light thrown down by those thousands of sparkling pinpricks threw the castle into stark silhouette, its spiky roofline cutting a powerful outline like a jagged hole in the velvety night.
I considered what an unsettling image this should by all rights be – a forbidding fortress in total darkness with its shutters being rattled by howling winds – yet the only chill I felt was that instilled by the gusts swirling around me. Rather than inspiring trepidation as the site of some unknown building might have done, the sight of Balintore on that tempestuous night instead filled me with a sense of uplifting comfort.
I realised then I had made a real connection with the castle, in one of those times where everything seems perfectly aligned and you feel a part of yourself will remain in that very moment forever.
A short while later, having warmed myself by the fading embers of the fire and climbed the turret steps to my attic room, I lay in bed listening to the wind whistling over the slates just a few feet above my head. I could feel the castle stretching out around me, and felt supremely comforted in the realisation that these robust walls had surely weathered many a storm in their time. Even more reassuring was the knowledge that, thanks to the tireless and admirable efforts of David, Balintore will now bear witness to many more years ahead.
Balintore Castle’s picturesque setting is currently under threat from a planning application to erect wind turbines on an adjacent hillside. These would be plainly visible from the southern aspect of the castle, undermining David’s effort to restore the building within its historic surroundings. Planning consent for a previous scheme was refused and an appeal dismissed due to the ‘unacceptable landscape impact’, as noted by the Reporter appointed by the Scottish Government.
If you oppose this development and the adverse effects it would impose upon Balintore Castle you can submit an objection here before the beginning of next week.
Please see David’s own blog post on this matter for further info.